By Charles Ford
Norfolk, Virginia would have seemed an unlikely place for the flourishing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals.
Until well into the twentieth century, it lacked accredited universities and well-known cultural institutions, yet featured an array of bars and brothels that openly catered to seemingly heterosexual sailors and travelers. The wider metropolitan region of Hampton Roads had even been named after an influential boyfriend of playwright William Shakespeare—the Earl of Southampton, but that fact had been long forgotten in the port city’s perpetual haze of tavern smoke. Nevertheless, Norfolk’s very seediness as “the wickedest city in America” allowed for a whole gamut of sexual and gender identities that reflected the rough-and-tumble maritime world.
This diversity only accelerated with the military build-ups associated with the world wars of the twentieth century; the Hampton Roads area grew by leaps and bounds with young migrants coming to its cities from all over the United States. The beginnings of identifiably LGBT communities came out of these cohorts of soldiers, sailors, nurses, etc., who remained largely invisible and/or closeted to avoid the ongoing threat of governmental prosecution.
Norfolk was a key place in the post-World War II Lavender Scare in which many LGBT or allegedly LGBT people lost their federal jobs because they were LGBT. That official harassment and surveillance would remain a real danger long past the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 in New York City.
One of the most famous of these local raids happened at the popular Pantry in March 1976. The Norfolk police apprehended twelve men on an array of charges from selling liquor by the glass to known homosexuals in a “lascivious context” to holding hands with someone of the same sex through facilitating a “house of ill repute.” The Pantry Twelve stood up for themselves: for court, they donned suits and ties and hired a well-known and effective local attorney and straight ally—the celebrated Peter Decker, and thus the judge dismissed nearly all but one of the misdemeanors alleged against them.
Around that same time, Hampton Roads witnessed the first voluntary admission of homosexuality by an active-duty serviceman through the discharge hearings for Vietnam veteran Leonard P. Matlovich, Jr. of the United States Air Force. These two events mobilized local LGBT leaders to found Our Own Community Press in the summer of 1976, and would help to galvanize grassroots protests at the downtown Scope Arena against homophobic singer Anita Bryant the very next year. Norfolk was the only city in which protestors disrupted Bryant’s performances inside her venue.
This burst of communal strength carried over into the founding of statewide LGBT advocacy organizations. One of the forerunners to Virginians for Justice, now Equality Virginia, was the Virginia Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which held its inaugural meeting in Richmond on February 24, 1978. And, one of its forerunners was the Norfolk Coalition for Human Rights, formed just ten days before the Anita Bryant protests of June 8, 1977, which would change “mildly militant” Tidewater forever.
At any rate, the Hampton Roads delegation was the largest and most well-resourced at the Richmond meeting, reflecting the energy and momentum begun by the Matlovich case just three years before. Indeed, Hampton Roads would dominate state-wide advocacy platforms until well into the Eighties, belying its later reputation as a provincial backwater years behind metro Washington.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic decimated this local leadership in the middle and late Eighties, despite Hampton Roads’ Patrick Heck’s founding and maintenance of Virginians for Justice from 1989 onward. Communal energies shifted to fight the AIDS pandemic, which hit Hampton Roads especially hard. Bar owner Tony Pritchard rallied others to launch the Tidewater AIDS Crisis Taskforce (TACT) in 1983, and other AIDS service organizations emerged by the early twenty-first century to form a sustained and significant supplement to the health care establishment in Hampton Roads.
Another landmark contribution to civic reputation and culture was the extraordinarily productive “Boston marriage” of Irene Leache and Anna Wood, which would produce one of the finest private schools for girls on the East Coast. Out of that school sprang all kinds of lasting institutions, including the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra, the Norfolk Society for the Arts, the Little Theater, and the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences.
While for years the former remained a fourth-rate and segregated museum, the arrival of the semi-closeted heir to an automobile fortune, Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., would later transform it into the Chrysler Museum of Art—a world-class treasure trove throughout the 1970s and ‘80s.
LGBT peoples were, and still are instrumental in giving Norfolk and Hampton Roads the cultural richness that they enjoy today.
Hampton Roads continues to be a leader for LGBT equality in Virginia. For the last eight years, Equality Virginia has recognized local legends from the Hampton Roads area at our annual Legends Gala. This year, on Saturday, November 8, we will honor Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, Mrs. Pam Northam, and Hampton Roads Pride. Click here to learn more about this event and to purchase your tickets!
Thank you to Charles H. Ford for this Special Edition blog! Ford is Professor and Coordinator of History at Norfolk State University. He and his research partner, Dr. Jeffrey Littlejohn of Sam Houston State University in Texas, have published many pieces on civil rights and public school desegregation in Hampton Roads and beyond. One of their recent co-authored articles, “Reconstructing the Old Dominion:Lewis F. Powell, Stuart T. Saunders, and the Virginia Industrialization Group, 1958-65,” won the William M. E. Rachal Award from the Virginia Historical Society for the best work to appear in the prestigious Virginia Magazine of History and Biography for 2013.